A Talk with Shalash, the Explosively Popular Iraqi Satirist

It’s publication day for Shalash the Iraqi, a collection of sketches of life in Iraq in 2005-06 originally published online on a punishing schedule. He grew to such heights of popularity surprising in a country with, at the time, such low internet penetration. As Kanan Makiya writes in his introduction: “At the time, Iraqis turned en masse, in a fever of urgency to Shalash’s stories. True, there were only 25,000 users of the internet there in 2003. But that posed no impediment. People were printing them out, copying them longhand, memorizing them, talking about them, sharing them, tell- ing and retelling them, plagiarizing them, and bombarding Shalash with questions and opinions about them by way of the email address he always provided for his readers at the end of each post.”

We don’t know the name or identity of Shalash; his English-language publisher, And Other Stories, set up this interview to happen over a series of emails.

From the time you started writing in 2005, your writing exploded into the sort of popularity with Iraqi readers that few writers worldwide ever see. Did your large and passionate audience change how you approached writing as Shalash? How long was it before you realized what a big deal Shalash had (and would yet) become?

Shalash: Of course, a popular writer who daily receives hundreds or perhaps thousands of letters falls under the influence of his readers’ authority. After only a few days—let’s say less than the first week after the appearance of Shalash—he became a phenomenon that occupied public opinion. It was a terrible thing for me, to be influential in a way that I did not expect, and that I could not even have imagined, in the sense that readers turned Shalash into their conscience and their exclusive voice. 

This required much more than the dark joke with which Shalash launched his first article. And here, I can confidently say that Shalash has completely separated from me,and that he lives his own intoxicating life, getting drunk on the wine of fame alone and practicing his private ecstasy freely.

In short, he is no longer me.

Was there a pattern to the many, many letters you received from readersWere they people asking for help, asking you to read their writing, wanting to argue with you, just wanting to send in their thanks and appreciation?

Shalash: I received a ton of messages from all sorts of people, but, to be honest, I didn’t read all of them. However, I did read some of the messages from close friends and family (who don’t know who I am, of course). They were hilarious and had me laughing out loud. It was nice to know that people close to me had a sense of humor about everything.

Other messages were from famous writers, singers, actors, and others, and I made sure to read those first.

Some of the messages were a bit sketchy with threats or temptations, and I’ll refrain frommentioning the names of politicians or clerics. Thankfully, most of the messages were positive, and people were just expressing their appreciation for my writing.

I found it amusing that some readers were trying to figure out who I really was, and they used to write me funy comments like: Oh Shalash, my dear old friend! How could you have ever thought that you were smarter than me? I mean, really, it’s quite comical. I’m going to swing by tomorrow to remind you of just how intelligent I am! 

Or: Shalash, do you remember that girl you used to call “my bunny”? That was me! I knew exactly who you were all along, Shalash. Don’t worry, I won’t spill your secrets… yet. Ha! I can’t wait to see the look on your face when I reveal just how much I know about you. Cheers to old friends, right Shalash?

I even received a message from a high-ranking government official who said his whole family loves my writing, and that they think all of what I write is true! He asked me not tomock him so his sons and daughters wouldn’t be disappointed in him. I promised him that I wouldn’t mention his name or his position.

There were also some messages asking for my advice on all sorts of things, from love to the future to emotional relationships. I’m flattered, but I’m not an astrologer! No one asked me for financial assistance, but many people offered to help me out. One woman even offered me a house in Jordan to live in so I could write without fear.

One of the things I love about your work is how fluid the posts are, genre-wise and length-wise (as well as how inventive linguistically). You are seemingly not bound by the formal rules of political or comic essay, memoir, short story, poem, etc. What rules did you have for yourself, when writing as Shalash? 

Shalash: When societal norms collapse in an instant, and when the society in which you lived through your childhood, adolescence, and youth appears as something other than what you thought it was—when it is not a civilized society, but rather a society that has the magical ability to return to the first Hijri century, as if you were watching a historical film appear before you, and where your neighbors are disputing about events that occurred 1400 years ago and fighting because of them—what rules can govern painful satirical writings? How can a person who lived this mess as if he was living a nightmare find a use for the rules for writing? Grammar and writing styles, I believe, are born from the nature of societies: from their culture, from the way they view the world existentially. And when society collapses and falls into the bosom of history, writing abandons everything that is normally in its nature.  

Dictatorship is a kind of system of government, in the sense that it is a system, but the American democracy that entered through the B52, the Hammer, and Mr. Bremer’s military boots meant chaos—chaos in everything and even in the language itself. I was writing under a pseudonym under the weight of a borrowed democracy that filled the streets with militias, gangs, murderers, thieves, and clerics who spent their lives in basements reading books discussing who is more entitled to take over the rule of Muslims, this caliph or that? And they became the actual rulers and controllers of the country’s destiny. Compared to their brutality, they made the dictator’s ugly image look like a soft pop singer. Here, the grammar of the language and the styles of writing must resign their work and discontinuetheir task of adjusting the conditions of writing.

There is something in these thats reminiscent of Charles DIckens or Ihsan Abdel Quddous, someone locking themselves in their offices on a Friday night to produce the next installment of a novel. Did you have any kind of schedule for yourself, or did you just wait until you were moved to write? 

Shalash: No, I did not write according to a schedule. Every evening, and throughout the period during which Shalash’s publications appeared—which according to one reader amounted to 104 articles—I would sit behind the computer and write quickly, because the manager of the site on which I was publishing insisted that I send him the article before nine o’clock in the evening. 

I used to laugh with my writings and sometimes shed tears. I was a kind-hearted ghost trying from the depths of his heart to bring people in his country back to their senses. Then he discovered, through the letters he received, that he was not alone, that there were huge numbers who shared his loneliness, isolation, and alienation. Honestly, the emails that flooded my inbox moments after publishing any of my articles were the fuel that helped me to continue on an almost daily basis, and in a way that amazed many, some of whom wrote that more than one Shalash took turns writing with such profusion.

What sort of revision process did you have? Were the pieces published more or less as you wrote them, or did some of them undergo an editorial process?

Shalash: Would you believe me when I told you that I did not even review these answers of mine to your wonderful questions?

I write only once; I’m not one of those writers who rewrite their drafts, I write quickly like someone shedding a heavy burden.  

Once, I came across an article talking about Marcel Proust’s revisions of his novel In Search of Lost Time, with pictures of his many corrections on his draft papers, which sometimes went far beyond the original text, and I said to myself, What a great author, but he has that patience and deliberation not befitting of a great writer. As for me, I leave the drafts as they are at the moment of their birth. Many readers have blamed me for grammatical and spelling mistakes that even a novice writer does not make. This is my destiny with writing, and this is the destiny of writing with me.

We can all imagine that when you started writing in October 2005, you had no idea that the Shalash blog and persona would becomenot just in terms of readership, but in its importance to Iraqi readerssuch a phenomenon. If you could travelthrough time from 2023 back to your self of September 2005, would you have any advice for that earlier self? (If I could time travel back to myself before opening the very small website that reshaped my life, to be honest I might say DON’T DO IT.)

Shalash: I don’t think I could have prevented the person who, twenty years ago—having had the harshest experiences in life—became Shalash. I should have been Shalsha, someone who wiped his homeland off the map and suddenly became a stranger in the society in which he lived and loved. It is true that the crash of the statue of the dictator might have been an important and perhaps happy moment. Yet with the crash of that statue, everything was shattered—I mean precisely everything. 

At that time, I no longer recognized anything around me, so it was ironic that I stepped out of my name and identity and turned into a shalash that mocks us all—mocks our customs, traditions, myths, and even beliefs. No, it doesn’t seem to me that I could prevent myself. It wasn’t an option, it seems; more like a necessity. 

In his foreword, Kanan Makiya says that you said you stopped being Shalash because you didn’t know how to be funny any more. Have you since considered resurrecting or rebooting Shalash? Or does that persona belong to a particular moment in time? (Could you imagine creating a different persona, suited to this time?)

Shalash: There is a lot of truth in Kanan Makiya’s words. Yes, I stopped because of the sense that I did not want to repeat myself. This decision did not come deliberately, meaning that it was not born according to a clear plan. Allow me to go back once more, to recall the old mood in which I found myself—or rather in which Shalash found himself. In those days, I used to receive letters from politicians, some of them in presidential positions, and I would read them carefully among the messages that I received from different classes of readers,to know the extent of the impact that my writings had on officials from the class that got involved in ruling without experience and without foreknowledge of the basics of running a complex state such as  my country, Iraq. 

It happened once that I received a letter from a senior official in which he was wondering about the reason for my two-day absence from writing, and he said at the end of his letter: Please, Shalash, go back to writing, because it makes us laugh and we enjoy it.

Here, I was struck by a moment of extreme frustration. Am I the conscience of the civilians, whose voice has been suppressed? I wondered. Or am I the court jester of the insignificant rulers? That message fell like a thunderbolt on my head. I wrote a public response to this official, mocking him by name, referring to his message, and then the countdown began for my enthusiasm to continue the game. At this point, I became certain that the ability to make black comedy requires a special mood, and by then I had said almost everything. I’dwarned people of the trap they had fallen into. I placed a giant mirror in front of them so they could see their present and near future. In this, unfortunately, my warnings werecorrect.

And here are my articles published in a book, in English, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of our existence in this deep pit—the pit of awakening the past and sleeping on its sadistic bed.

As for the second part of your question, the truth is that I cannot reproduce Shalash. Perhaps I could write comedy under my real name. This is possible. As for Shalash, he has become a completely independent person, with his personality, style, and different way of life. Shalash was born in the womb of events that will not be repeated. The events became familiar, and people got used to them and adapted to them. What people were afraid to say twenty years ago has become normal talk on social media, which flourished after Shalash stopped. The era of Shalash-the-writer is over, and Shalash-the-author remains. Just as we can’t expect another Laurence Sterne to appear, we can’t expect another Shalash. Thesetwenty years—in terms of changing the general mood of society—are no different from the more than two hundred years that separate us from Sterne’s masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Writing is the daughter of its time, but reading has no limits, time-wise.  This is how the poor Shalash, who lived for only two years, has now become part of the English readers’ allotment without having anything to do with it.

Just because Kanan Makiya mentions Ali Badr‘s Baba Sartre in the foreword — does Shalash have any favorite books? Or films, music…games?

Shalash: Kanan Makiya’s reference to Papa Sartre was very much to the point. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this satirical novel and found it to be a literary work par excellence. I have a fondness for novels where the protagonists poke fun at their world, such as Jacques the Fatalist by Diderot and Don Quixote by Cervantes. In my previous answers, I mentioned Lawrence Sterne. Along with Rabelais, of whom I have only read a few of his works in poorly translated versions, these authors embody the spirit of the novel that Dostoevsky took to extreme seriousness, while still taking human beings seriously. Unfortunately, Dostoevsky’s rare genius killed the joyous convergence in the essence of the novel and its ability to minimize the significance of our existence as simple beings. Our naivety is what makes us real. We do not require someone to interpret our inner workings and reveal the darkness of our subconscious. This is what Cervantes, Diderot, Sterne, and other true fathers of the novel accomplished.

Along with the authors I mentioned, I have delved extensively into literature, particularly English literature. I adore the works of Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Thomas Hardy. However, the likes of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and also the American novelist William Faulkner do not appeal to me. Their writing is far too serious and exhausting for my taste. The works of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse also leave me feeling drained. In my view, the novel is a unique human invention that attempts to remove the weight of seriousness from existence. It is a genius recipe for preserving our spontaneity as ordinary human beings. The novel is not a scientific tool to uncover the layers of our psyche. Humans are capable of loving, hating, suffering, and grieving without a deep need to explain it all. Why must we understand ourselves through the Karamazov brothers, when we could instead choose the life of the idiot Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s great novel—the good man to whom we are not supposed to say “you are an idiot”?

Are there other Iraqi books or writers, outside of Ali Badr / Baba Sartre, who you recommend? Or writers/books that Shalash would recommend? 

Shalash: There are several noteworthy Iraqi novels published after 2003. lthough there are too many to list, I recall a few translated into English, such as Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, Mohsin Al-Ramli’s The President’s Gardens, and Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter. In my opinion, The American Granddaughteroffers the best account of the Iraqi occupation, portraying how different generations and cultures view the concept of homeland. This novel deserves to be adapted into a Hollywood film to reach a broader audience. I also remember the poignant story of Shahd, the narrator in Baghdad Clock, and the sorrowful anthem that is Ya Maryam by Sinan Antoon, which sheds light on the plight of an important segment of Iraqi society. It’s also worth noting that Hassan Blasim’s melancholic short stories exhibit a rich and imaginative talent. Moreover, there are numerous other outstanding novels in Arabic that remain undiscovered by the world due to language barriers.

It is essential to recall Betool Khudairi’s A Sky So Close. Although published before the war, it paints a vivid and dynamic portrait of Iraq before the occupation. The novel also brings to the forefront the significance of identity, how it is formed and altered.

What is your relationship to the translation of your work? When you look at it, does it feel like you? What are you hoping for, in its reception? What sort of audience would you most like to reach, if you’ve thought about its readers at all?

Shalash: I am grateful that the translator devoted so much time and talent to Shalash’s work. At times, I thought the project was doomed to fail because even Iraqi readers had difficulty understanding some of Shalash’s writing. I frequently receive letters from readers who are confused by certain phrases or expressions. Shalash wrote from the perspective of the lowest echelons of society, using language that was unfamiliar even to the local population through various media outlets such as newspapers, books, literary publications, and television programs. So what is the likelihood of someone from a completely different culture, belonging to one of the most important and elite academic societies—Harvard—being able to comprehend it? 

Luke Leafgren accomplished a remarkable feat in translating Shalash’s work into English. While I assisted with providing cultural references and explaining the meanings of metaphors, Leafgren truly excelled in translation. I would like to express my gratitude to him and to a friend who made a significant effort to collaborate with the translator, although I will not mention their name here.

To be frank, I do not know what to expect from English readers. It is certain that they will have a different experience of Shalash’s work than Iraqi readers. Cultural context, language, and metaphors are not easily transferrable between two such disparate cultures. However, what remains in the translated text, with all the translator’s skill, is the common human sense that unites us as human beings. There is always an unspoken language that exists between the people of this planet that allows us to understand each other. 

One final question: If you could have your Shalash book translated to any other language or languages, after English, which would it be? 

Shalash: To Spanish or French. Cultures that have read Don Quixote, who is the Bible of the Spanish language, or that have read Rabelais and Denis Diderot, are likely to be able to digest light writings such as those written by Shalash the Iraqi. I do not expect, for example, that the book will be understood in Germany, not because the Germans lack a sense of humor, but because of the nature of their logic. Personally, I have not read a satirical German novel except one written by an author with a Hungarian father, as I remember, and its events revolve around Hitler’s return to life again to turn into a successful YouTuber because of his continuous screaming. This novel was not written under Hitler, but sixty years after his absence from life. Satirical literature needs a culture that has a good margin of indifference and the ability to underestimate the importance of things, in the sense that it has the ability to laugh with excessive pain. We have in Iraq a strange phrases that I do not know if It has its equivalent in other cultures, we say: “he died from laughter” or a second phrase, “I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry.” 

Laughter here is related to the essence of existence. It is not only a way to express an entertaining situation or in response to a joke, but it’s a way to express anger, too. It’sabout the highest stages of dissatisfaction, about the rejection of reality in its entirety. Perhaps it is the last thing left for a person after running out of all other tricks.

More about the collection at the And Other Stories website.


“The Privatization of Da’bul’s Oil,” an excerpt from Shalash originally published in November 2005, translated by Luke Leafgren

The Book’s Preface, Penned by Shalash and translated by Luke Leafgren

“Looking Back from Iraq,” a Shalash-focused episode of BULA

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